By Chris Ritter
In Part One I outlined how some United Methodists are proposing to divide the cookie in our denominational debates over biblical authority and human sexuality. If division is inevitable, a managed process might be favored over a process driven by localized self-interest. In this post I seek to offer some suggestions for how General Conference might approach the topic of Gracious Exit.
Congregations are Better Together, Too
It is argued by some that leaving the denomination should be hard. That may be. But if “Better Together” is true on the denominational level, isn’t it even more true on the local level? Our Book of Discipline calls the local congregation the “primary arena” for mission and disciple-making (¶701.2). It is understandable that denominational leaders hope to keep as many sheep in their fold as possible. But once a church has voted, shouldn’t it be everyone’s goal to keep the congregation moving together into the future they select? Bishops and cabinets should not try to subdivide congregations, whether they be progressive or traditional.
To hold together, some congregations will take two votes. One will be an agreement to maintain unity, honoring the decision of the majority. This might mean a straw poll followed by a near-unanimous vote. (The Council of Bishops actually followed this same procedure on the Way Forward models so as to end up with as unified a statement as possible.) While there will be individuals that need to leave for the sake of conscience, they should honor the congregation’s unity by letting the group otherwise move together. If a final vote can be nearly unanimous, there will not be the temptation to start a splinter congregation that draws from the same group of people.
A further issue: When a congregation exits, what are the exiting to? The churches that have exited thus far have left to self-governing congregationalism. Methodists, however, are inherently connectional, accepting the value of institutional authority above the local church. To keep connectionalism going, General Conference 2019 might encourage those exiting to afterward enter into some sort of Methodist connectional body. The trust clause would be transferred, not just relinquished to the congregation. If the connectional body wants to afterwards relinquish the trust, it could do so. I don’t believe that connectionalism is solely defined by commonly held property. But there are legitimate concerns that an important feature of Wesleyan Christianity might be lost in a congregationalist system. One way General Conference can encourage continued connection is by offering a more generous path for those affiliating with connectional expressions of Methodism. It might even create such a connection.
The Traditional Plan contains a mechanism for exit to new, separate connections. The problem is that the Judicial Council muddied the waters in applying constitutional ¶41 to that mechanism in their recent ruling. This little-used article governs congregations who want to transfer from one annual conference to another “in which it is geographically located.” This situation only ever exists in the case of missionary conferences whose maps overlap those of traditional conferences. Par. 41 requires these transfers to be ratified by a super-majority of the conference they are leaving, a very unwieldy burden. Our highest court confused an exit provision for a transfer provision. There is concern that bishops may be tempted to use Decision 1366 to hold congregations even more tightly against their will. This part of the Judicial Council ruling is currently being appealed.
It seems like we need some sort of guidance from General Conference 2019 in how to treat those who will be disaffected by the decisions made there. I believe it is possible offer such guidelines without encouraging division. What I offer here are only suggestions:
- It is okay for a conference to mandate a study process before exit, but this should not be unduly protracted or heavy-handed. The unified discernment of the local church should be the goal.
- Decisions on exit may be made at a church conference chaired by the district superintendent or his/her designate. The chair should remain neutral. If the conference wishes to have someone there to make arguments, they should be graciously received. The chair should not enter into the debate.
- When a congregation asks for a church conference to consider exit, the bishop and cabinet should grant this in a timely fashion and not use the pastoral appointive process punitively.
- All parties will respect the majority decision. Neither group will seek to start a new church from among the members (at least for an agreed upon time). There is no way to police this for individual members that lose the local church vote, but at least the UMC can opt for the high road.
- The financial arrangements suggested by United Methodists for a Gracious Exit seem fair and can form the basis for a set of financial considerations.
If the conference makes the process too onerous, a congregation may opt to hold their own meeting without the district superintendent present and simply send a letter of disaffiliation. Some congregations have already done this, redirecting their apportionments to a legal defense fund in preparation for a lawsuit. Some UMC officials are fond of saying that they have never lost one of these trust clause legal battles, which are fought differently from state to state. But are there really any winners?
Some of us still hope that the United Methodist cookie will not crumble. Critics of the September statement, including the bishop in West Ohio, argue that creating an exit before approving a solution amounts to admitting defeat before we even start. But I am increasingly confident that some will feel the need to leave no matter what the outcome of General Conference 2019. The issues have expanded well beyond human sexuality to include matters of denominational integrity and competence.
Thoroughgoing progressives support the One Church Plan only as a good start toward full inclusion. If the Traditional Plan prevails, on the horizon looms the specter of GC2020 which could undo any decision that is reached. Plans that keeps all the current players in the UMC will also keep this distracting fight going unless much more space is granted, as in the Connectional Conference Plan. But so far there does not seem to be the will among delegates for the far-reaching structural changes that might allow all groups to sort themselves out under a widened denominational umbrella. Whatever else Gracious Exit is, it is decisive. Managing it with church-wide policy might be the price the institution has to pay for an end to the distraction.